Head of European Commission pledges aid to Darfur region

EL FASHER, Sudan -- The head of the European Commission urged Sudan's president on Sunday to help the African Union keep peace in the troubled Darfur region and end the obstacles hampering the work of humanitarian groups there.

On a visit to the war-torn region, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also announced a pledge of more than $50 million in aid from Europe amid mounting international pressure on the Sudanese government to accept a U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur.

"The humanitarian tragedy here is unlike any others," Barroso said in the North Darfur capital of El Fasher. "Here, almost everybody is fighting everybody."

At least 200,000 people have died and some 2 million have been displaced since the start of a 2003 revolt by rebels from Darfur's ethnic African population. The Arab-dominated Sudanese government is alleged to have responded by unleashing militias known as the janjaweed against villagers.

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has refused to allow a U.N. force to take over for an ill-equipped and underfunded AU force that has been ineffectual in bringing stability to Darfur.

AU troops were due to leave Darfur in September, but Khartoum has agreed to let them remain until the end of the year. About 100 U.N. military advisers also are due to join the AU in an effort to prevent more violence in the region.

The AU has made plans to add as many as 4,000 troops to its force but does not have the money to move them in. It is negotiating with international donors for funds.

"It is my impression that President Bashir understands that the status quo is not sustainable, and indeed not acceptable," Barroso told reporters during a news conference.

He had met with the Sudanese president and former Darfur rebel chief Minni Minawi -- who signed a peace deal with the government in May -- late Saturday in Khartoum.

The EU chief also voiced the international community's "debt and gratitude" to the AU for their peacekeeping efforts in Darfur, calling criticism that the mission has done little to protect suffering civilians "unfair."

"This is the first time the AU has a peacekeeping mission, and it has it in one of the most difficult situations in the world," Barroso said during the press conference after reviewing the AU troops at their El Fasher headquarters.

Barroso and Louis Michel, the EU commissioner for development, were greeted in the North Darfur capital by AU deputy mission head Hassan Alieu Gibril, who said he thought the high-profile visit would boost troop morale and bring more international attention to the region.

Barroso also discussed the humanitarian situation with aid groups and voiced his deep concern that 13 aid workers have been killed in recent months.

Though some rebels signed a peace deal with the government last May, violence has worsened due to infighting between factions and because of a large government offensive launched last month in what the U.N. says is a violation of the peace agreement.

"We have witnessed at times an almost deliberate effort to create a humanitarian tragedy here"' Barroso told the AP.

He was scheduled to fly to the AU's headquarters in Ethiopia later Sunday.